In late March, Noa-Lynn van Leuven, currently ranked as the sixth best women’s darts player in the world, made history by becoming the first trans woman to win both a women’s tournament and an open tournament organized by the Professional Dart Corporation (PDC). Her victory over cisgender women at Series 2 of the PDC Women’s Series in Wigan, England, prompted the departure of her two national women’s darts teammates, Anca Zijlstra and Aileen de Graaf.

Zijlstra and De Graaf conveyed to the Dutch Darts Association (NDB) their decision to withdraw from the women’s national team. Zijlstra expressed feeling “embarrassed” by what she described as “a biological man playing in the women’s team.” In response, the NDB defended Van Leuven, emphasizing that she met the stringent requirements to compete in the women’s category. The current transgender policy for darts players aligns with the 2015 International Olympic Committee’s guidelines, which mandate a “total testosterone level in serum below 10nmol/L for at least 12 months” before the first competition and during all competitions, along with maintaining a consistent gender identity for at least four years.

But is testosterone the key factor in explaining why men tend to excel over women at darts at the World Championships? Linda Duffy, a former professional woman darts player turned Professor in Sports Psychology, pondered the question of why men outperformed women in “throwing a little piece of metal against a target.” In a recent interview, Duffy pointed out that playing darts is more about psychology than physical prowess, and gender, rather than sex, is the “biggest predictor of darts performance.”  

In her doctoral research, Duffy referenced sports studies on darts to argue that differences in hormonal levels between sexes do not reliably predict performance in throwing tasks. Surprisingly, women with higher levels of estradiol, a female reproductive hormone, showed better throwing performance compared to those with lower levels. While research on the performance of throwing for velocity, such as in baseball, often favors cisgender men due to longer arms and greater heights, these physical traits become a disadvantage with accuracy-focused tasks like darts. Longer arms, for instance, can lead to more errors in articulating the elbow during throwing. Therefore, the dominance of cisgender men in darts is “almost certainly not attributable to a biomechanical male advantage.”

Duffy attributes the higher athletic performance seen in male darts players largely to socio-cultural factors. Her research suggests that societal expectations regarding gender roles influence how sporting activities are perceived across gender differences. This, in turn, results in men having greater self-confidence in dart throwing compared to women, which is a key element in achieving success in the sport.

Various socio-cultural factors have contributed to gender inequity in sports, as we have discussed previously. The dominance of male darts players stems from historical advantages in accessing and excelling in the sport. Darts, with a history spanning 700 years, only began including women in the late 1970s. Linda Duffy, who held the title of the world’s number one woman player in the 1980s, recalled facing barriers in the 1970s, such as being barred from pubs and darts leagues due to her gender. In some cases, other all-male darts teams even refused to participate in leagues where she played.

It’s hard to believe that just 50 years ago, women players were not seen as “deserving” of playing darts. Fast forward to today, top women dart professionals are not only excelling in women’s tournaments but also competing and winning against cisgender men in elite competitions. Fallon Sherrock, known as the “Queen of the Palace”, is a prime example. Despite losing to Van Leuven at Series 2 of the PDC competition, Sherrock has been consistently beating male elite players at major darts events since 2019, making her the first and only woman to do so regularly.

Ever since her overnight victory over male opponent Tim Evetts, who was ranked 13th  in the world at that time, Sherrock has faced ongoing sexist comments from male darts fans who disapproved of her success against men. In 2020, Sherrock bravely spoke out about the appalling abuse she has endured online, including “violent and misogynistic attacks” on her “unfeminine” and “ugly” appearance, as well as mocking her “swollen” face, a result of her struggle with kidney disease after giving birth to her son.

It is striking how recently women darts players, such as Fallon Sherrock, were seen as “undeserving” of victory due to entrenched misogyny and sexism. Throughout history, elite women players have been systematically excluded from male-dominated sports. Even now, when women darts players compete against men and achieve victories, they are often criticized based on their appearance rather than their actual ability to perform.

When trans women play darts in the women’s category, there is a shift in perception where cisgender women players, who were previously considered “undeserving” are now seen as “deserving” to win because their cisgender status “defends” the women’s sports. In the match between Van Leuven and Sherrock, which Van Leuven won, fans’ comments overwhelmingly supported Sherrock for being the “real woman”  while accusing Van Leuven of “cheating” by “imitating” women. Some even called for female players to boycott Van Leuven.

The controversy surrounding Noa highlights an important question: Who is considered “deserving” of winning? The existence of trans women in women’s sports has reshuffled attitudes toward cisgender women players, who were previously excluded and bullied in the male-dominated darting world. Now, trans women are the “undeserving” competitors who have no right to access–let alone succeed– in sports. This argument is also weaponized across racial categories, with cisgender women of color being accused of trans identity to justify their undeservingness.

Instead of addressing the systemic gender inequity—differences in training opportunities, sponsorships, and prize money compared to men—that puts women at a disadvantage in sports, some cisgender women darts players like Zijlstra, De Graaf, and Duffy blame trans athletes for “muddying the water” where cisgender women have “worked so hard to be relevant and competitive.” However, it is crucial to remember that it was never trans people (no, not even “biologically male” trans women) who gave women a difficult time participating and succeeding in sports.

The solution to the “transgender issue,” therefore, shouldn’t involve creating newly entrenched categories that further separate trans women from women’s sports. Instead, the focus should be on addressing directly the patriarchal structures within sports that divide women into “deserving” and “undeserving” categories, perpetuating cultural norms that mark certain women (in this case, trans women) as disposable.

Siufung Law (they/them) comes from Hong Kong, is a TEDx speaker, a nonbinary professional bodybuilder, and Ph.D. student at Emory University. They are a trans activist actively promoting the transgender-only bodybuilding competition in Atlanta, GA, organized by the International Association of Trans Bodybuilders and Powerlifters (IATBP).